On The Eucharist: Conclusion

On The Eucharist: Conclusion July 24, 2017

This is the fifth and final post on a series exploring the eucharist. Click here for part one, and here for part two, and here for part three, and here for part four.

Disputation of Holy Sacrament by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Disputation of Holy Sacrament by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
When we partake of communion, we receive in our body that which is physical and yet, we eat something far more than the physical form of bread and wine indicates:  we receive and are received into the body of Christ. It is a fundamental truth. What we are doing when we partake of the eucharist transcends what the senses indicate. What appears before us is mere bread and wine, and yet the truth is that what we have is Jesus Christ himself. The truth behind the eucharist reinforces the truth of the incarnation, for right understanding of the eucharist establishes that God truly became human, that Jesus is truly God and man. He assumed humanity with all that is human upon himself. In this manner, as he can be said to have lowered himself to become human, he also lifts up humanity so it can come into himself.

The symbolism behind communion, the use of both bread and wine, serves to demonstrate that he took the whole of humanity, and not just a part of it, in the incarnation. The bread symbolizes the physical aspects of humanity while the while the wine represents our spiritual side, as Peter Lombard explained:

But why is it taken under a double species, since the whole Christ is in either of them? In order to show that he took the whole human nature so that he might redeem it whole. For the bread is referred to the flesh, the wine to the soul; because wine becomes blood, in which the seat of the soul is said to be by the natural philosophers. [1]

This symbolism comes, in part, through the integration of other forms of symbolism employed in Scripture. Thus, it was said that blood related to the life-force, or spirit, of every created: “”For the life of every creature is the blood of it” (Lev. 17:14a).  The soul is the life-force which animates the bod. Blood, in its fluidity, in the way it helps give nutrients to the body and flows throughout the body, easily serves as the physical manifestation of what the soul does for the body, allowing it therefore to be the most representative feature of the body which correlates with the soul.

One of the goals of communion is to help bring the person receiving it to become deified, that is, communion is a means by which theosis is to occur. It helps the person enter into the divine life, taking the immortality of the resurrected Christ unto themselves as they find themselves incorporated into the life of Christ himself. That is, communion is a source of extraordinary grace. While it also renders the forgiveness of sins, this should be seen only as the precondition for its ability to open up the person who receives it so that they can be lifted up beyond their human nature and enter into communion the Trinity and be partakers of the divine nature by grace.  It changes the one who receives it into itself:

For, in the manner that, as the Apostle says, a little leaven assimilates to itself the whole lump, so in like manner that body to which immortality has been given it by God, when it is in ours, translates and transmutes the whole into itself. For as by the admixture of a poisonous liquid with a wholesome one the whole draught is deprived of its deadly effect, so too the immortal Body, by being within that which receives it, changes the whole to its own nature. Yet in no other way can anything enter within the body but by being transfused through the vitals by eating and drinking. It is, therefore, incumbent on the body to admit this life-producing power in the one way that its constitution makes possible.[2]

The eucharist, then, is a means by which God is able to be all in all. “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor. 15:28 RSV). The subjection implied in this verse is the subjection of love that Christians, who have become one with Jesus, have for God the Father. Through us, through our union with the Son in holy communion, the righteousness of the Son is manifest in the world. We are rendered holy and see all things in our union with the Son. All things manifest this holiness to us because God the Son has worked to reestablish all things in holiness and we see all things through his accomplishments, allowing us to say, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father.”[3] Divinity finds the way to manifest the oneness of the people of God, and not just of the people of God, but of the whole creation, as all things are reconstituted in the Logos. God is all in all, making all things holy in their participatory union of love. Through grace, we are lifted up and become sons and daughter of God by adoption; we receive the body of Christ and become the body of Christ as it incorporates us into itself. We can become radiant in his glory,  and slowly awaken to the truth which St. Maximus the Confessor declared:

The blessed invocation of the great God and Father and the acclamation of the “One is holy” and what follows and the partaking of the holy and life-giving mysteries signify the adoption and union, as well as the familiarity and divine likeness and deification which will come about through the goodness of God in every way on all the worthy, whereby God himself will be “all in all” alike to those who are saved as a pattern of beauty resplendent as a cause in those who are resplendent alone with him in grace by virtue and knowledge.[4]

We therefore receive the body and blood of Christ, not just as a spiritual aid, not merely for the forgiveness of sins, but as a means by which God is able to fulfill his purpose in the incarnation. God became man so that man can become God; God the Son assumed human nature and now we are able to be taken up into him. He does not force this upon us. We must be willing to open ourselves to him and receive the holy gifts which will render us holy. Either we receive with thanksgiving joy, or we risk perdition as we say no to God and his grace.  If it is the food of life, then as St. Ignatius warned, those who deny it risk death:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes.[5]

What, then of those who do not know, who have not been given the chance to receive the sacrament? Are they doomed? No, as with all the sacraments, those who are invincibly ignorant and have not the means of their normative reception but are open to God and his grace are able to receive the grace of the thing itself in an extraordinary means if and how God so desires. It is a sacrament, which reveals a reality which takes place in us, but that reality is something God can and will give to all who are open it to it. Those who came before Christ, as well as who receive extraordinary graces after the incarnation took place in history can be incorporated into him as he will give himself to all at the great feast at the end of the world.  Jesus, therefore, called the kingdom of God as a Great Feast (cf. Lk. 14:15-24) because it will indeed be the great feast of Christ, where he will finally eat again (cf. Lk. 22:16) and assume into himself the whole of creation, not for its absorption or destruction, but for its elevation.

Our reception of communion in the here and now brings us into this eschatological feast: this is the great gift which Christ has left behind to the church. That is what we know. That is what we receive with joy. We do not judge others nor know their eschatological fate; we know the gift Jesus has given us and if we receive it in the right spirit, full of thanksgiving and awareness, we can slowly see the eschatological kingdom is indeed within us and realize our place within it is one with its place within us. One is holy – shall we be one with the one or not? That is up to us.


 

[1] Peter Lombard, The Sentences. Book 4: On the Doctrine of the Signs. trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010), 58 [XI.iv-4.1].

[2] St. Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism” in NPNF2(5): 504-5.

[3] Response in the Divine Liturgy which the people sing after the priest chants about communion, “Holy Gifts for the Holy.”

[4] St. Maximus The Confessor, “The Church’s Mystagogy” in Maximus the Confessor. Selected Writings. trans. George C. Berthold (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 210.

[5] St. Ignatius, “Epistle to the Smyrnaens” in ANF(1):89.

 

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